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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                     71
and, taking advantage of the compliance of his silent
listener, he praised the "female tribe" to the skies.
"But look what's happened, my dear Alexei," he said.
"A woman will always cling to a thing with both her
hands. Am I not right? Why does she do that? Because
she is stingy? Not a bit! She does it because this thing is
dear to her. It is she who feeds the children; whatever
you may say, it is she who runs the home. Now listen to
what happened here. You can see how we are living; we
count every crumb. Yes, we are starving. Well, this was
in January. A band of partisans suddenly turned up. No,
not our men. Our men are fighting somewhere near
Olenin, so we heard. These men were strangers to us,
from the railway. They burst in on us and said: 'We are
dying from hunger.' Well, what do you think? Next day
these women filled those men's knapsacks with food, and
yet their own children were swollen from starvation, too
weak to walk. Well? Am I right? I should say so! If I
were a big commander, when we have kicked out the
Germans, I would muster all our best troops and line
them up in front of a woman and order them to march
past and salute this Russian woman. That's what I would
The old man's chatter had the effect of a lullaby on
Alexei and he often had a short nap while the old
man talked. Sometimes, however, he felt an urge to take
the letters and the girl's photograph from his pocket and
show them to him, but he did not have the strength to
move. But when Grandad Mikhail began to praise his
women, Alexei thought he could feel the warmth of
those letters through the cloth of his tunic.
At the table, also always busy with something, sat
Grandad Mikhail's silent daughter-in-law. At first Alexei
had taken her for an old woman, Grandad's wife, but
later he saw that she could be no more than twenty or
twenty-two, that she was light-footed, graceful and pretty,
and he noticed that whenever she glanced at him in her
frightened, anxious way, she always heaved a trembling
sigh, as if she were swallowing a lump. Sometimes at
night, when the rushlight had burnt out and in the smoky
gloom of the dugout the cricket—which Grandad Mikhail
had found in the gutted village and had brought home